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James Fletcher, by Dulcie Hartley. Chapter 2

My late friend and amateur historian Dulcie Hartley published several books during her lifetime, but one book she was very proud of never made it into print. This was her book about James Fletcher, Newcastle’s famous “miners’ advocate” – the only man in the city to be commemorated with a statue. Miner, politician and newspaper proprietor, Fletcher was immensely popular and influential, and Dulcie was fascinated by him. After Dulcie’s death, her daughter Venessa entrusted me with the manuscript, and I have slowly transcribed it.

The following second chapter, concerning Fletcher’s involvement with The Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner’s Advocate, is the heart of Dulcie’s book, exposing as it does the intriguing middleman role Fletcher played between mining unions and mine owners. Fletcher took money from the coal barons and acted as their agent, using the newspaper and his position of trust to keep coal prices and miners’ wages high through a “vend” (a cartel deal among mine owners) and a “sliding scale” (linking miners’ pay to productivity – a disincentive to strikes).

The saga of The Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate

With the implementation of the vend and sliding scale, proprietors and miners alike entertained hopes of future harmony in the coal industry. In an attempt to consolidate the position a young journalist and compositor, John Miller Sweet, was approached in 1873 by district miners’ representatives, including Thomas Alnwick, David Gardner and the Miners’ General Secretary, John Wood. They convinced Sweet that the miners required a newspaper allied to their interests, with the resultant birth on 21 February 1873, of The Miners Advocate & Northumberland Recorder, a four page weekly selling for 3d per copy and published at Plattsburg (now Wallsend). Sweet’s published aim was to “defend their (the miners’) rights when encroached or assailed and exercise a vigilant supervision over the legislation affecting their welfare” ….. “nothing would be done to interfere with the rights of Capital, but it would be my steadfast aim to cement the interests of Capital and Labour, and always endeavour to prove that both sides had equal rights”. Through the columns of the newspaper Sweet also aimed “to wield a wholesome and elevating influence among those whom it professed to serve”.

John Miller Sweet was born in West Maitland and in 1865 was apprenticed to Messrs. Tucker, Cracknell and Falls, proprietors of The Maitland Mercury. At the completion of his apprenticeship Sweet came to Newcastle to work for George Maxted of The Pilot as compositor, and from there made his way to Plattsburg to commence his weekly Miners’ Advocate.

A rare letterhead of the original Miners’ Advocate, signed by John Miller Sweet. Courtesy Reg Pogonoski.

He experienced a severe financial loss a few months later as the Devon Street premises of The Miners’ Advocate were destroyed by fire. Sweet was in Sydney at the time and his assistant, a Mr Hough, had been left in charge of the office and adjoining residence. The fire was thought to have been caused by an arsonist and Sweet fought unsuccessfully for many months for financial reimbursement. Friends rallied around to assist him obtain new Plattsburg premises and recommence publishing.

In 1874 Mary Ann Fletcher, the first born of the Fletcher union, married John Miller Sweet, and this marriage was eventually to provide James Fletcher with the opportunity of media coverage for control of the mining industry. In the early years, however, The Miners’ Advocate continued, under Sweet’s proprietorship, to strive for the amelioration of working conditions, and was a strong advocate of unionism and higher wages. The paper supported reduced working hours, as well as “free, secular and compulsory education”.

Supporting its aims, the paper ran an essay competition in 1875, the subject being “The Past, Present and Future Social Conditions of the Working Classes”,’ the object being “to Develop the Mind and Improve Conditions of the Working Classes”. There were prizes for First, Second and Third and only working men were invited to participate. The judges were well-known citizens AAP Tighe and James Hannell. The winning entries revealed a comprehensive understanding of the subject with the first prize winner remaining coy under the pseudonym “Chips,” and second and third prizes going to John Davies. In 1876 Sweet purchased The Newcastle Morning Herald and moved all his printing equipment to the eastern side of Bolton Street in Newcastle to commence publication of The Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate.

In the early days so many newspapers failed that Newcastle became known as “the graveyard of newspaper ventures”. Sweet’s confident expansion program was no doubt motivated by the fact that Laidley, the proprietor of the Cooperative Colliery, had just succeeded in leasing the adjoining Wentworth Estate. With the availability of these new coal deposits the future looked rosy for the Plattsburg community. District population figures were: Plattsburg 2300, Wallsend 2500 and Brookstown 300. The continuing loyalty of the mining communities probably induced Sweet to next purchase The Newcastle Chronicle and move to the opposite side of Bolton Street. He had now amalgamated three newspapers to produce a daily paper, The Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners Advocate, selling more than 4000 copies, had the largest circulation in NSW outside Sydney.

Sweet, reminiscing in his later years, said that when the question of the sliding scale was first mooted, “a meeting of coal owners was held at the Herald (Miners’ Advocate) office when old “Sandy” (Alexander) Brown, brother of James, was so impressed with the logic and feasibility of the suggestion that he said, “Fletcher, if you can bring this project to a reality Jimmy and I will make you a present of £10,000”. Unfortunately for James Fletcher, Alexander Brown did not survive for too many years after this.

Sweet became ill with rheumatic fever during 1877 and was unable to work for months. From 1876 to 1878 James Inglis was working on the paper and he, writing afterwards of his time in Newcastle, said “I did not meddle with the coal question or purely mining matters; they were manipulated by experts and there was a good deal of wire pulling and puppet dancing”.

Inglis, who took over management of the paper during Sweet’s illness, was somewhat of an elitist. He mentioned that the proprietor was a man of “not much reading”, a rather unfair criticism of Sweet who was well-read and considered a most competent journalist.

The original Newcastle Chronicle office on the western side of Bolton Street, Newcastle.

Sweet was fortunate to have employed such an experienced journalist as Inglis. Suffering ill health, Inglis had left his native Scotland at 19 years of age and sailed to the New Zealand goldfields. In 1866 he sailed to Calcutta in India to stay with his brother Alexander, a tea merchant, and it was there that he commenced publishing verse etc under the pseudonym “Maori”. After further travels Inglis, now crippled with rheumatism, was commissioned by an Indian newspaper, The Pioneer Mail, to travel to the Australian colonies seeking information regarding investment opportunities “as a field for Anglo-Indian capital”.  He worked for several newspapers, and before long his health had improved. He later became a successful businessman, establishing the tea firm James Inglis & Co (circa 1887). From 1885-94 Inglis was a Member of the Legislative Assembly for New England, and became Minister for Public Instruction in 1887 during the Parkes ministry.

Unfortunately John Sweet’s lengthy illness had proven a financial disaster for the paper and, at the close of 1877, he was forced to borrow money from his father-in-law, James Fletcher, to continue publication. In January of 1879 Sweet relinquished control of the paper, although he continued as manager until April 1879, after which he resigned, enigmatically stating: “Why I am compelled to leave it cannot be stated here. The reasons will be fully exposed in the Supreme Court of this colony next month where I am expecting justice”. There seems to be no sign of this case, so perhaps some form of justice arrived sooner than expected. Shortly afterwards Sweet resumed his managership of the paper.

During 1882 The Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate and John and Mary Ann Sweet achieved international notice. The occasion, the first Tradesmens’ Fancy Dress Ball, was held at the Newcastle City Hall under the patronaqe of the Hon. Sir John Robertson, J.  Fletcher, G.A. Lloyd, T. Hungerford and A. Cameron, all members of the Legislative Assembly. Proceeds from the ball were to benefit Newcastle Hospital. Mary Ann Sweet’s dress, “The Press,” was so outstanding that it was reported in papers from as far afield as The London Times Lithograph and The News in Cincinnati, USA, as well as in Sydney and Melbourne papers. The new Gardiner patent printing process had recently been installed at the Herald plant, and 15 different colours had been used to create a striped rainbow effect on the white satin material. On these were printed in colour columns of news as had appeared in the Herald on the previous day.

This lavish costume was so novel that after the ball it was exhibited at the Garden Palace in Sydney. So, thanks to the ingenuity of John Sweet and the Herald staff, Newcastle and its newspaper came into public focus. Sadly, this publicity was to be of short duration. The Garden Palace in Macquarie Street, covered five acres of land at present Botanic Gardens site. This magnificent structure, erected in 1879 for the Sydney International Exposition, was totally destroyed by fire on 22 September 1882.

In 1886 John Sweet finally severed all connection with the Herald, after which he travelled to the Kimberley goldfields of Western Australia, near Halls Creek. Before leaving Newcastle he sold the family home of six rooms and balconies situated at 2 Devon Terrace, Lower Church Street, (near the corner of King and Auckland Streets, Newcastle.) All household effects including Dresden china, furniture, a Ronish piano and a valuable library containing 600 volumes went under the hammer.

A Newcastle businessman, John Russell, accompanied Sweet and they joined up with six Sydney men, all travelling on the steamer Victoria to the Cambridge Gulf, disembarking at Wyndham, Western Australia, and thence overland to the Halls Creek district. The ship carried 130 steerage and 20 saloon passengers, as well as 126 horses. Sydney capitalists had floated a large company and Sweet’s party was considered to be the best equipped to leave Sydney for the diggings, with twelve horses, a wagonette and provisions for six to eight months. Famous West Australian explorer Thomas Hagon joined them and great results were expected by the financiers. Sweet wrote a series of despatches describing life at the diggings for Sydney and Newcastle newspapers. On his return in December of 1886 he is reputed to have brought back two pounds of gold and the family shortly after moved to Sydney.

Continuing the saga of the Herald newspaper, James Fletcher remained as proprietor until December 1888. After taking over from Sweet in 1879, he had been subsidised by a group of mine proprietors and on the termination of the 1884 court case, Brown v Fletcher, William Laidley apparently waived debts owing by Fletcher who then became proprietor of the paper.

James Fletcher had been friendly with the Brown family during his early mining days. However,  in 1880 Fletcher became embroiled in litigation with J & A Brown over the ownership of Ferndale Colliery at Tighes Hill. There followed a breakdown in relations between James Brown, his son  John Brown and Alexander Brown Jnr,  a son of the late Dr. William Brown. Old Alexander “Sandy” Brown had died on 29 May 1877 and cousins John and Alexander Jnr. had inherited his estate. Fletcher became a close friend, business associate and ally of Alexander Brown Jnr. at the expense of his relationship with John Brown. This preamble provides some understanding of why, in 1884, the now ailing James Brown instigated litigation to recover money loaned to Fletcher for the continued operation of the Herald.

The case Brown v Fletcher was of interest even in Sydney as James Fletcher was by then a well-known parliamentarian. The Sydney newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, was of the opinion that philanthropy had played a large role in Fletcher’s acquisition of The Herald. He had used the newspaper to vigorously advocate the advantages of the vend and the sliding scale which had resulted in brisk trade and general prosperity in Newcastle. “The effect of the sliding scale has been to improve the miners’ conditions and engender a spirit of confidence and contentment”. Although the newspaper was successful in “educating public opinion on these important subjects” it became involved in debt and Fletcher proposed surrendering the property to his creditors, the principal ones being W.G. Laidley and J & A Brown. However, in acknowledgement of Fletcher’s services “for the purpose of retaining the paper to continue to advocate the commercial system that had been established, they paid off portion of the debt and took promissory notes from Fletcher for the balance, urging him to continue producing the Herald on the understanding that he would never be responsible for payment of the bills. In retrospect this was a doubtful arrangement as it was dependant on continuing friendship and trust. As well, with such a sizeable circulation it was difficult to understand why the paper was in debt.

During the hearing it was mentioned that the firm of J. & A. Brown “must have made about £30,000 p.a. by the vend scheme”. After the death of Alexander “Sandy” Brown the only surviving partner, James, who was aware of the business negotiations, brought an action against Fletcher for repayment. Possibly John Brown exerted influence on his ageing father to instigate these court proceedings.

The Sydney newspaper extravagantly reported that “Mr. Fletcher’s well-known generosity …… especially to the poor and distressed, has prevented him from accumulating wealth. He has enriched the Browns and other colliery proprietors and has advanced the prosperity of Newcastle as no other man has done. He has improved the condition of the miners, and in doing all this, has impoverished himself”.

Whilst the article presented a reasonably accurate assessment of the situation, the role of the Press could be questioned as it confirmed comments made by James Inglis regarding manipulation of the coal mining industry by the paper. Fletcher’s lifestyle after entering parliament was fairly flamboyant. Members received no remuneration for their services so were dependant on business profits, or support from philanthropists, and Fletcher was extremely fortunate to have William Laidley on many occasions providing financial assistance.

In evidence Alexander Brown said that Fletcher had performed a valuable service for money advanced for “his advocacy in his paper of a principle which they considered upheld the price of coal. That advocacy was of great value to the firm (J & A Brown) as the paper exercised great influence over the miners, and did, in fact, keep up the price of coal for years”.

Julian E. Salomons, later to become Chief Justice of NSW, acting for John Brown, argued that “if Fletcher’s advocacy were honest he did not understand how he could accept a bribe for it”. During the hearing William Laidley said that he had advanced £2000 to Fletcher and J & A Brown had advanced £1500. The newspaper had a large overdraft so Laidley and James Brown decided to pay it off to give Fletcher a clean sheet. Due to the debts incurred Fletcher thought it would be wise to sell the paper to pay off the debts, but the two colliery owners thought it advantageous to mine proprietors and miners to continue the paper. Therefore Laidley paid his share of the liabilities, amounting to £4000, and James Brown paid his share, a similar amount.

When, in 1883, John Brown, Fletcher’s former friend and business associate, requested the money owing, Fletcher protested: “You cannot take the breaks off a highlander!” thus implying that his financial position was desperate. This was indeed the case due to financial over-commitment on his expanding mining interests. No doubt the Brown family were aware that he was on the verge of bankruptcy.

The fact that the price of coal had reached 14/- per ton was attributed to the newspaper’s advocacy and this was recognised by the proprietors as full consideration for the money advanced. It was thought important for Fletcher to retain control of the newspaper due to his great influence over the miners. The sliding scale was “a powerful preventative against strikes and consequently it was easy to understand how valuable Fletcher’s services were”. The Sydney Morning Herald considered that “it was ungrateful of James Brown after having his fortune made by the introduction of the sliding scale to endeavour to crush Fletcher”.

Fletcher, defended by Edmund Barton, later first Prime Minister of Australia, stated that although he was the originator of the sliding scale and the writer of articles in support of it, he was not the owner of the newspapers. The money in question was used to keep the papers afloat and was of no benefit to himself, although cheques were drawn in his name and bonds were given. [The other paper to which he referred was evidently The Great Northern Temperance Advocate, issued from the Herald office from 1884 until 1890.]

The Jury found in favour of the plaintiff, James Brown, for £3500 plus costs, a total of £4252. Fletcher was broke, but members of the community rallied to his aid and by donations, raised the necessary amount. It would seem therefore, that Fletcher’s popularity was undiminished and that the majority of his constituents considered he had been unfairly treated by James and John Brown. Notwithstanding this, the court case had confirmed media manipulation and this was no doubt repugnant to some readers and probably engendered a crisis of confidence in the Herald. In an apparent attempt to address this problem Fletcher, in 1885, commenced publication of another Newcastle newspaper, The Evening Star. “It will know neither party or creed, but will endeavour to uphold Truth and National Advancement and fearlessly expose wrongdoings”. However, this paper proved to be of short duration, like several others established around the same time. Fletcher’s financial problems continued and finally in December of 1888 he sold the Herald to Hudson Berkeley and William W. Johnson, both wealthy local businessmen. (Samuel Palmer was an early member of the partnership, but he sold out to Berkeley and Johnson.)

The new owners appointed the redoubtable John Norton, later to achieve fame and notoriety through the pages of his Sydney newspaper Truth, as editor, but his stay in Newcastle lasted only a few months. The Herald usually took a Protectionist stand to encourage local industry but during Norton’s editorship he forwarded copies of the paper to Sir Henry Parkes, the Free Trader, assuring him that it was conducted “on independent political lines”. This type of conduct probably hastened his departure.

During the years of his connection with the Herald Fletcher had published (and at times personally written) many hard-hitting leading articles, especially on such issues as “the Chinese menace”, immigration, Australian nationalism and the mining industry. He was fortunate to employ competent managers and editors of the calibre of Thomas Corrigan who succeeded James M. Sweet in 1879 and was with the paper for many years. Other veterans included John Felix McGrory, general manager until 1886, William Morriss, manager 1887 and Richard Thatcher Editor until 1888. Reporter William Turner was with the paper from the time of its inception in Wallsend and W.T. Dent was a correspondent for many years. Edward Nutter, formerly co-owner of The Newcastle Pilot and Newcastle Chronicle, became Sydney agent for the Herald. George H. Varley, another valued employee, eventually left to become proprietor of the Clarence & Richmond Examiner.

The present newspaper continues to be published at the present time although there have been changes of ownership. The paper is now published under the banner of The Newcastle Herald.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. John Carr

    The 1882 Tradesman Ball is stated to have been held in the City Hall in Newcomen Street. This may be an error as the Newcastle Borough Council office was in Watt Street and is still extant together with additions on that site.

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